The Early Years/Soul of the City
From: Collaborative Housing Society (
Date: Mon, 30 Oct 1995 10:28:32 -0600
Judith, re: your "wish that I would comment", I thought you were explaining
it rather well as it was. . .

As for my comment that cities have souls, I want to slightly rephrase that.
In my growing interest in this whole idea of "neighbourhood" and neighbours,
an underlying question is why defined neighbourhoods seem to take on a
certain spirit or identity of their own.  Toronto is blessed with many
wonderful downtown neighbourhoods, and almost everyone has an ability to
talk about them as places beyond their geography - ie., the Beaches is
understood implicitly to be a different place than the Annex, or Riverdale,
and not just because it's on the lakeshore, though that obviously has a lot
to do with it.

I'm talking about the things that might not even show up in demographics.  I
think that Riverdale has the same demographic mix as the Beaches, but it is
a very different place.  But even if differences did show up in statistics,
Why?  What attracts that mix to that area?  (The neighbourhoods I am
mentioning all share very similar house prices, and offer a fairly wide
range of income levels, household types, etc., but are very different
places)  That's the unquantifiable "soul" I was refering to, perhaps better
captured by the idea of Place (read Tony Hiss's book, "The Experience of
Place" for more on this).

I can't help but think that it is not a far stretch to suggest that cities
have identities, if not souls (ask someone of their feelings about Toronto
who has had the pleasure of living in Montreal. . .)

So, how does this relate to cohousing, and getting cohousing started in
inhospitable environments?

All I have to say to that is that one of the best neighbourhoods we lived
in, from a coho-esque point of view, was on the 12th floor of a 30 storey
high rise.  We overcame the limitations of that building form by leaving our
doors open (to catch the cross breezes in the summer), letting our cats
wander around at will (not *all* the time!), sharing occasional meals, and
doing all the neighbourly things.  This happened gradually over time, and
time is perhaps the key factor in all this - we lived there for 7 years, but
so did many other people in the building, without the same effect.

So how did it happen?  All I can say is that a couple of people on that
floor wanted good neighbours, so became good neighbours.  Things like
showing up with a bottle of wine and four glasses on the day we moved in,
same when ever anyone else moved in.  They used to leave their door open,
whether you wanted them to or not.  Not only did no one complain, others
(*not* everyone) started to do the same.  Never overly intrusive, just very
friendly, welcoming, lots of little things that just grew into
neighbourhood.  A key, from my architectural point of view, is that all
these actions were ways of claiming that dead, institutional space between
our units for ourselves.  It was not uncommon to see people open up their
doors and vacuum the hallway around their apartments, even though the
property maintainence was pretty good.  Its a way of saying this Place is
ours, and not just abrogating our responsibility to a place to some
nameless, faceless management corp., or government, or any other outside

Again, how does this relate to coho?  Well, my theory is that if I'm starved
for human contact and community, there must be others out there who are too.
In relation to this discussion about Philadelphia, surely all the people
who've ended up there from somewhere else are dying to overcome the frigid
social hell they've found themselves in. . .

Calling a meeting about coho, even if only three people show up, is the only
place to start.  You could then go on to have monthly pot-lucks at each
others houses, and watch it grow.  Remember, it doesn't have to spring fully
formed from someone's forehead to be cohousing. . .or whatever else you want
to call it.  In fact, wanting it to be perfect from the start is, IMHO, a
symptom of why cohousing had to be invented for our world in the first

In the end, remember the parable about the journey of a thousand miles
starting with that first step - cohousing *could* be as simple as saying
hello, and opening your door.  If the neighbours really don't like it, or
don't respond, I suggest getting the hell out of there!  They're sucking the
life right out of you!

I read over this and know that it sounds so simplistic - no program, no do's
and don'ts.  But cohousing is, at its heart, such a simple, and elegant,
idea.  It doesn't really need fancy new developments, reinvention of the
house or even glossy picture books - though they all help, and have value in
their own right, and I'm glad we have them.  But I'm still convinced that
cohousing starts when someone realizes the power of saying hello to a
neighbour, and goes on to keep saying hello.  That's what we've lost in our
modern world, and that's what all this talk about financing and construction
is, in the end, trying to rebuild - IMHO.  And no talk about income
disparities, ghettos, bad neighbourhoods can convince me otherwise - I've
seen too many cases of people becoming good neighbours, cohousing neighbours
even, in spite of the worst physical and social surroundings.

In the end, what I call "cohousing" is just people opening their doors to
people.  And, with good reason, that can be the scariest path of all.

Russell Mawby
cohosoc [at]

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